Opioid task force’s honor well-earned; more work ahead

Published: 11/27/2018 11:01:28 AM

It was just about five years ago that we noticed in the police logs disturbing reports of discarded needles in public places like parking lots and convenience store bathrooms. To explain that observation we began making inquiries that led to our first six-part series on what has since become recognized nationally as an opioid addiction crisis.

Our reporting brought us to the county sheriff, district attorney and register of probate court, who had also discovered the deleterious effects of heroin and painkiller abuse and were in the midst of trying to do something about it.

Sheriff Christopher Donelan began telling those who listened that the Elm Street jail he runs in Greenfield had become something of a drug rehabilitation center behind bars, no longer a jail that offered some rehab. Franklin County Register of Probate and Family Court John F. Merrigan began seeing the impact of opioids on children and parents when they wound up in the court. And District Attorney David E. Sullivan could see the same in criminal courts.

They were among the first who told our reporters what has since become a mantra among those fighting addiction: we can’t arrest and prosecute our way out of this problem.

In 2013, Donelan, Sullivan and Merrigan formed an opioid abuse task force. The ad-hoc group brought together dozens of area leaders and professionals interested in stopping the proliferation of addiction and in helping those already ensnared in Franklin County and the North Quabbin region.

Merrigan hoped the court would be able to take a stronger role in connecting defendants in drug-related cases with treatment programs. He estimated that 80 to 90 percent of the Franklin County court cases were related to addiction in some form.

Since those days, the task force has won major grants from the state and federal governments and pioneered a communitywide attack on addiction, from education about addiction, to intercepting those headed for trouble, and if need be, helping with rehabilitation and recovery.

They have involved public schools, hospitals, medical professionals, the courts and jails and nonprofit social service providers. They’ve been instrumental in bringing more rehab beds closer to home.

For leading these efforts, the state has named the three co-chairmen of the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region as the recipients of the 2018 Manuel Carballo Governor’s Award for Excellence in Public Service.

Donelan, Merrigan and Sullivan are among winners of the award that acknowledges those who play a major role in the successful delivery of quality services to Massachusetts citizens. They are slated to be recognized by Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito in a ceremony at the Statehouse on Dec. 7.

Sullivan said this award serves as recognition of the roughly 500 people whose work the task force coordinates.

“It’s good to keep the opioid crisis on the front burner and if people see this award … they’re going to keep focusing on it,” he told The Recorder. “I’m just looking forward to the task force doing bigger and better things in the future.”

Donelan and Merrigan expressed similar sentiments when asked about the recognition. In a statement, Donelan said those involved with the task force have a passion for their work and he is grateful for the state’s support in tackling the opioid crisis.

Merrigan said, “We’ve been joined at the hip since day one and it’s been a privilege to work alongside the sheriff and the district attorney to fight this epidemic.”

Since those early days when the task force formed, we’ve continued to report on addiction and recovery, and the task force has persevered in what has turned out to be a long-term endeavor, longer and more difficult than any of us imagined.

But for now, we join the governor in applauding Merrigan, Donelan and Sullivan and all those working with them as they lead the local assault on this national scourge.



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